EU Said to See Mid-April Date for U.K. to Decide Brexit Fate

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19 mars 2019, 20.25

(Bloomberg) -- The European Union is likely to tell Theresa May that she must decide by mid-April whether to extend Brexit until 2020 or risk leaving in three months without a deal, a senior EU official said.

At a summit in Brussels on Thursday, leaders are likely to deliver an ultimatum that would give the British premier just three weeks to decide whether to gamble on getting the current Brexit deal through British Parliament by July.

If she decides she can, the EU is almost certain to deny any further request for a Brexit delay were she to fail, the official said. That risks a no-deal exit in July. If she decides she can’t, the EU is likely to grant an extension into next year, which would be politically toxic at home.

The mid-April deadline stems from the timetable for European Parliament elections. If the U.K. doesn’t hold elections and doesn’t get a deal done, it will be ejected from the bloc on July 1. The U.K.’s seats are being reallocated to other countries and EU governments need to know on what basis they’ll be holding the May 23-26 ballot.

Diplomats are also discussing whether EU leaders should return to Brussels next week for an emergency summit to sign off on an extension on March 28 or 29, two EU officials said.

Speaker’s Ruling

May’s Brexit strategy was thrown into disarray this week when House of Commons Speaker John Bercow said she couldn’t put her unpopular deal back to lawmakers for a third attempt unless she changed her proposal first. But EU officials are still maneuvering to try to help her get the agreement through Parliament -- and see that as plan A.

Like May, European officials have some hope that the prospect of a long delay will scare Brexit-backing politicians into backing her deal.

In an attempt to make a Brexit extension look unpalatable to pro-Brexit members of parliament, EU leaders are likely to insist that the current divorce deal can’t be reopened even if the U.K.’s departure is postponed by many months, according to the official. His comment was backed up by diplomats’ notes of a meeting of EU ministers on Tuesday.

That would mean that even if Parliament votes against the deal and the U.K. delays Brexit for further negotiations, the much-hated Irish border backstop will remain. The U.K. will also be asked to pledge not to disrupt EU business or decisions during the extension, the official said.

Leaders will allow a long Brexit delay only if May sets out a clear explanation of how she will break the current parliamentary deadlock, EU officials said. This could be in the form of “a timetable to a new referendum or a new election,” EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told a meeting of European governments in Brussels on Tuesday, according to a diplomatic note.

This reflects a feeling among leaders that a long extension might pave the way to the U.K. changing its mind and staying in the bloc, the official said.

“My feeling is that a longer extension needs to be linked to something,” Barnier told reporters after the meeting. “There needs to be a new event; a new political process.”

It’s unclear whether Bercow will consider a new agreement on an extension enough of a change to justify another vote. He hinted on Monday that some kind of new agreement with the bloc would be required.

Premier’s Options

However his agreement wouldn’t necessarily be needed, so long as May had a majority in Parliament to vote to bypass his ruling. If she had enough support to get her deal through, she would have enough support to hold a vote on her deal.

In any case, leaders are prepared to make the extension offer contingent on a possible vote next week. If the deal is passed, the EU will grant a “technical” extension of two or three months to allow for outstanding legislation without conditions. If the deal fails, a longer extension will be required, and May will be pressed for new ideas.

Going into the summit in Brussels, patience with the U.K. was wearing thin. Member states don’t want a no-deal, but many are keen to stop wasting resources on a country that’s meant to be leaving.

Dressing Down

“I don’t have any appetite for substance-less, very abstract discussions and negotiations on Brexit,” German Europe Minister Michael Roth told reporters. “Please deliver, dear friends in London, please deliver.”

There was similar frustration in the U.K., where a cabinet meeting of May’s most senior ministers Tuesday saw them split about whether to seek a long extension or a short one, and broke up without a conclusion, according to officials.

Some ministers argued that the government should ask the EU to delay Britain’s departure until June 30, and use the time to prepare to depart without a deal. Others argued that the prospect of a longer extension was having the effect of scaring pro-Brexit Conservatives into line, and should be kept as an option.

On hearing her colleagues argue for a long delay, Leader of the Commons Andrea Leadsom told them that they used to be the cabinet that would deliver Brexit but now, from what they were saying, they were not, a person familiar with the matter said. On Tuesday evening, pro-Brexit ministers were said to be meeting to discuss how to prevent May seeking a long delay.

(Adds U.K. Cabinet split in final paragraphs.)

--With assistance from Robert Hutton.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ian Wishart in Brussels at iwishart@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at bsills@bloomberg.net, Emma Ross-Thomas, Robert Jameson

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